Exploring voice

One of the most stirring encounters that I experienced this year was a one-hour lesson with Nadine George on discovering your voice. Nadine has been teaching voice for thirty years to actors, directors and other creative types. According to her website:

“Having spent eight years researching the voice at the University of Birmingham Drama Department, Nadine has developed her own voice technique. She now works closely with many international theatre companies and drama schools all over Europe. She has been teaching at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland for the past 20 years, where her work is now the chosen technique taught by the Centre for Voice In Performance.”

What was I doing there? A good question. I wasn’t entirely sure myself. I was sent to Nadine by my wife who had previously trained with Nadine, and who had an instinct that I’d find the lesson rewarding.

Her method is in a lineage that descends from Alfred Wolfsohn via Roy Hart. These were not names that meant much to me before this year. Suffice to say this is not an entirely performance-based tradition of voice work. Wolfsohn suffered shell shock during the First World War and used vocalising as a form of self-treatment after other therapies failed to help. While Nadine does not claim to be a therapist, she recognises that her work has therapeutic impacts.

Nadine’s method entails, initially, deep and somatic breathing exercises followed by singing in different registers with what she describes as the four qualities of the voice. The remainder of the lesson was spent working on a text from Macbeth (“Is this a dagger…”) This description doesn’t really do justice to her approach though. What it amounts to is getting out of your head and letting your authentic feelings be expressed. This is something coaches might try to facilitate in their clients over numerous sessions but which Nadine can lead you to in the space of an hour (though she also offers much longer workshops over several days).

When it came to the singing and text work, Nadine got me to stand before her and fill the room with my voice, addressing the distance. If I tell you that we were in a large Victorian studio in East London and that, as an introvert, I normally prefer to lurk in the margins, you can appreciate that this was far from my comfort zone. Nadine encouraged me to slow down in my performing of the text, opening to the vowels, and allowing any constriction in my throat that wanted to happen. I said this felt like my throat closing, but she said it was actually a manifestation of me opening to emotion: the emotion written into the text by Shakespeare and the emotion within myself. Perhaps the throat was where a conflict between opening and staying defended was playing out. Nadine’s method, I think, entails working with the tension in your body rather than against it. In this sense, it shares something with mindfulness.

Periodically, Nadine would pause to enquire what I was experiencing. My mind was firing with associations and reflections. There was a sense of discovery: of my voice, myself and of the meaning in the text. While some parts of the latter (“Pale Hecat’s off’rings…”) didn’t make ready sense to me, Nadine encouraged me not to approach it cognitively but energetically. By working iteratively with the text at an emotional level, the meaning broke through in my felt experience (voice, facial expression, body).

This was heartful work, on both our parts. I felt many resonances: an unfamiliar space and permission to find my voice, and wondering at the power of it (not experienced in this way since school days). I contrasted this with a sense of caution and apology that has influenced my self-expression in professional life. One of the reasons I left broadcasting was because I felt stifled by the BBC’s ethos of impartiality, even as a private citizen. But even now as an inpependent consultant, my voice is to some degree rehearsed from a cognitive place before I speak. I realised this as I was reciting Shakespeare at top volume and by now encouraged by Nadine to go at a faster pace, so that cognitive processing was bypassed.

My voice routinely comes from my head (both in the sense of being thought-through and located in my head more than my torso). The mental processing introduces a hesitancy. Here it was bursting through and confident, unafraid to risk. There was a sensation of taking my ground and this is what was stirring. Not only for myself. This was an experience, I felt, that could energise many of my clients – for finding one’s voice, stepping into one’s mandate, inhabiting one’s authority are challenges many people face in the contested life of organisations.

Regular followers of this blog might be surprised to read of me grappling to find my voice. But even in writing on a website which is completely under my editorial control, there’s always an element of self-doubt in committing my thoughts to posterity. The daily blogging challenge that I’ve been undertaking this month and that is drawing towards its close is a means of overcoming that internal resistance.

Coaching, insofar as it proceeds through conversation, uses the medium of voice. But, beyond coaching for presentation skills, I’m not aware of much coaching practice that works on and with voice – with voice as an attribute of leadership identity.

I found a blogpost by Genevieve Clarke which describes the Nadine George Technique in a nutshell:

“The connection of breath to voice, connecting real emotion to text, use of the voice in different registers and creating a true authentic performance.”

It’s about finding and manifesting the real emotions in the body and working with them to bring one’s real self into play. Leaders in organisations as much performers on stage inhabit a variety of roles from which their true selves are more or less disconnected. This is what leads ultimately to organisations behaving in ways that can offend the values even of the people who constitute them. And more broadly, at the end of this troubling year, millions are wondering how their voice has become so disregarded in the political process. Enabling voice is pivotal to distributing leadership.

Hat tip: Carolyn

Image courtesy Sam Leech.

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